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September 22, 2017

Named and Famed

Jay Pharaoh, with a little help from his friends, is becoming White Famous.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Patrick Ecclesine/Showtime

When Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Kevin Hart and Jamie Foxx come up in conversation with Jay Pharoah, it’s not because he’s name-dropping.

The famed comedians are all the subjects of some of his best impressions — and they’re also his friends and mentors. Now their journeys in the industry are the inspiration for Pharoah’s new Showtime series.

White Famous, premiering October 15, stars Pharoah as Floyd Mooney, a stand-up comic on the verge of crossing over into mainstream recognition — or becoming “white famous.”

His buddy Foxx serves as an executive producer — along with series creator Tom Kapinos and director Tim Story — and appears in the show as an exaggerated version of himself, responsible for Mooney’s big break.

Pharoah, best known as a cast member on six seasons of Saturday Night Live, can relate to his character. “I’m crossing over too,” he says. “I’ve been through the wringer. We all go through it. We do the black rooms, the urban rooms, and not all of us — not even a lot of us — but some of us get a chance to cross over to a main audience.

“When I first read the material, I responded to it. I thought, ‘This is exactly what I’m going through. I did do this.’”

Born Jared Farrow in Chesapeake, Virginia, Pharoah started performing at eight years old in a local children’s theater troupe. He traded the boards for a brick wall at 15, when he began pursuing stand-up comedy.

“I wasn’t a stranger to the stage,” he says of his auspicious beginnings. Much later, on SNL, he made a name for himself with his impressive roster of impressions, but it was at age six that he first charmed a crowd with his skill, performing an imitation of Iago the parrot — voiced by Gilbert Gottfried — from Disney’s Aladdin for his first-grade class.

“I’d imitate teachers, people around me,” he recalls. “A teacher would leave the classroom, and I’d be up at the front impersonating her. There’d be someone by the door, making sure she didn’t see me.”

There’s little chance of Pharoah going unseen now. You might even say he’s white famous.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017

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